The U.S. joined 153 other nations voting in favor of the arms trade treaty (ATT), ending almost a decade of negotiations. Three countries – Iran, Syria and North Korea – opposed it while another 23 countries abstained, among them Russia and China, both major arms exporters.
Kerry in a statement welcoming the “historic outcome” of the talks described the ATT as “strong, effective and implementable,” saying that the treaty “can strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade.”
Supporters see much to like about the treaty, which seeks to prohibits countries from conducting weapons transfers that will violate arms embargoes or be used for acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
They assert that it will not affect gun-ownership in the U.S. – one of the “redlines” set down by the Obama administration when it first agreed to enter negotiations in 2009.
Kerry reiterated that stance in his reaction on Tuesday.
“By its own terms, this treaty applies only to international trade, and reaffirms the sovereign right of any state to regulate arms within its territory,” he said.
“As the United States has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment.”
Critics have other concerns about the treaty, arguing that such documents tend to be upheld by law-abiding, responsible actors – including the U.S., the world’s number one arms exporter – but ignored by rogue regimes.
Now that the General Assembly has approved it, each country will be required to sign and ratify it.
The top U.S. negotiator, Thomas Countryman, told a briefing last week that it could take months before President Obama signs the ATT.
“As with any other treaty, it will get a careful review by every relevant agency of the U.S. government before it goes to the president for signature,” he said.
Once signed, it will need Senate advice and consent, requiring the support of two-thirds – 67 – of the 100 senators.
Last month, a concurrent resolution introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kans.) expressed the sense of Congress that the president should not sign and the Senate should not ratify the treaty.
Thirty-three more senators have co-sponsored the measure – all Republicans bar Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), both highly-rated by the NRA – raising the prospect of a battle to reach the two-thirds majority vote required for ratification.
Reacting to Tuesday’s vote in New York, Sens. Moran, Baucus and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) noted that the move violated the very basis on which the administration first entered the negotiations – consensus.
One of the administration’s redlines stated, “The ATT negotiations must have consensus decision making to allow us to protect U.S. equities.”
“Consensus is needed to ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation by denying arms to those who would abuse them and to avoid loopholes in the Treaty that can be exploited by those wishing to export arms irresponsibly,” a 2010 State Department fact sheet explained.
“The passage of a treaty that Iran, Syria, and North Korea have made clear they have no intention of abiding by will only serve to constrain law-abiding democracies like the United States,” Moran said.
“The U.S. Senate is united in strong opposition to a treaty that puts us on level ground with dictatorships who abuse human rights and arm terrorists, but there is real concern that the Administration feels pressured to sign a treaty that violates our Constitutional rights.”
In a separate initiative, Inhofe last month authored an amendment to the Senate budget resolution aimed at preventing the U.S. from entering into the ATT. It passed by a 53-46 vote.
“It’s time the Obama Administration recognizes it is already a non-starter, and Americans will not stand for internationalists limiting and infringing upon their Constitutional rights,” Inhofe said on Tuesday.
In a letter last July, 51 senators (including eight Democrats) said they would not ratify any ATT that does not “uphold our country’s constitutional protections of civilian firearms ownership” and “explicitly recognize the legitimacy of lawful activities associated with firearms, including but not limited to the right of self-defense.”
Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Ted R. Bromund, who has closely monitored the ATT negotiations, said problem areas include the fact that the treaty focuses largely on arms exporters rather than on those who import them.
“This is in line with the tendency of both the U.N. and uncritical believers in arms control to blame problems on weapons, not on those who use them,” he wrote in a recent analysis.
“Yet it is the importers of the arms, not the exporters or the arms themselves, that are actually responsible for arming terrorists or committing human rights violations with the arms in question.”
Apart from the treaty’s prohibitions (relating to arms embargoes, genocide, war crimes etc.) it also requires signatories to consider, before authorizing an arms transfer, to take into account whether it will contribute to or undermine peace and security, and whether it could be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law.
Bromund said the treaty would be “a moving target,” and that “[i]nterpretations of its human rights criteria will only become more restrictive over time.”